ATLANTA — As Devin Hester neared the goal line on his 62-yard punt return for a touchdown Thursday night, he decided to high-step his way into the end zone. It was a nod to his boyhood idol, Deion Sanders, who smiled in approval as he watched at the Georgia Dome.
It was Hester's 20th career return for a touchdown, breaking Sanders' NFL record. While the Falcons strutted like "Prime Time" in prime time before a national TV audience, the Bucs were making historic — if not hysterical — marks for futility.
As historians thumbed through the record books, the Bucs' 56-14 loss narrowly avoided the worst defeat in franchise history.
First, they dodged the shutout with 8:46 remaining when Mike Glennon hit Vincent Jackson on a 3-yard touchdown pass. Less than two minutes later, linebacker Danny Lansanah returned a T.J. Yates interception 27 yards for a touchdown to prevent the most lopsided loss in club history (45 points, done twice).
"I've never been a part of anything like this. It's embarrassing," linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "We have to live through this nightmare right now."
Hester's punt return, which came after his touchdown run on a 20-yard end-around, gave the Falcons a 35-0 lead with 7:06 remaining in the first half. Matt Ryan threw three touchdowns, including two to Julio Jones.
To add injury to insult, starting quarterback Josh McCown sustained a right thumb injury when he hit a helmet on a throw late in the first half. He said he will have X-rays today.
"I'm embarrassed by our play," coach Lovie Smith said. "We failed in all phases. Of course it starts with the head football coach. I thought I had our football team ready to play. We couldn't stop them on defense. Couldn't score any points on offense. Special teams, we couldn't get anything done there. I talked to the team and told them we have a scar. Scars don't go away. The rest of our lives, we're going to remember this game."
How bad were the Bucs?
Start with five turnovers. Running back Bobby Rainey lost two fumbles. McCown saw a pass intercepted and returned 23 yards for a score by safety Kemal Ishmael. Evan Dietrich-Smith sent a snap over the 6-foot-6 Glennon to set up a touchdown run by Steven Jackson.
After his second fumble, Rainey spent a good portion of time on the bench.
"It's frustrating," Smith said. "Bobby is a good runner, but you can't turn the ball over."
The defense offered no resistance to Ryan and the league's No. 1 passing offense. Ryan threw touchdown passes to Harry Douglas and Jones in the first three possessions.
For the Bucs, this completed their 12 days of Jiminy Christmas, in which they fell to 0-3 under first-year coach Smith.
Smith vowed to make changes: "The direction we're doing right now isn't getting it done."
Even when things went good, they went bad.
In the first quarter, Ryan hit tight end Levine Toilolo. He was stripped of the ball, which was recovered by safety Mark Barron. But during his return, Barron was caught by Hester and fumbled the ball back to Atlanta.
Smith, as Bears coach, drafted Hester in the second round out of Miami in 2006 and watched him become one of the league's most dangerous kick returners. Hester was so upset by Smith's firing in 2012, he talked about retiring.
This offseason, the Bucs passed on signing him, and he agreed to a three-year deal with the Falcons worth $3 million per year.
The Bucs have 10 days before they play at Pittsburgh on Sept. 28. Then they are at New Orleans on Oct. 5. By then, they could have defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (hand) and running back Doug Martin (knee) back.
But McCown's future is in doubt. In addition to the thumb injury, he has thrown four interceptions in 10 quarters after just one in eight games for the Bears last season.